After two days of racing in Kuusamo, Finland, the Ruka Triple turned its last page on Sunday. As it turned out, the women’s 10-kilometer freestyle pursuit was a thriller.
Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla came into the final day of the mini tour wearing bib 1 and with only a 2-second lead on the last person one might want skiing on their tails, Norway’s Marit Bjørgen.
The gamesmanship, the change of pace, skiing’s version of the dodge and parry became a two-skier affair between Kalla, 30, and Bjørgen, 37. Yet, followers of the sport know Bjørgen’s end-game: push the pace, determine who can match the pace, then seemingly flip a switch and steamroll ahead solo.
The Swedish-Norwegian pairing performed an endurance duet that kept the packs of chasing skiers at bay. Sweden’s Stina Nilsson started the pursuit 12 seconds back in third, Norway’s resurgent Ingvild Flugstad Østberg 20 seconds back in fourth, and Russia’s Natalia Nepryaeva 23 seconds back in fifth. Norwegians Heidi Weng and Ragnhild Haga began 41 and 42 seconds back, respectively. None could gap up.
Kalla and Bjørgen never blinked. They gradually pulled away from the chasers.
“My plan was to ski quite fast together with Marit, and not bring the ones behind us into the game,” Kalla told FasterSkier in a post-race phone interview. “Because I know that Stina is a really good sprinter, so me and Marit had to work together to keep the gap to the others.”
Heading back out into the woods on the final lap of the 2.5 k course, Kalla punched it. She accelerated the pace to what looked like a sprint, and Bjørgen initially stayed right on her tails.
How sustainable was this pace? And would it be possible to pop the Norwegian, who had won Saturday’s race over Kalla by 17 seconds? In the previous 10 k classic, Kalla had matched Bjørgen’s times until the last 1 1/2 kilometers or so, when the punishing pace took its toll and she began hemorrhaging time.
That was on her mind as Kalla kept up her furious pace.
“Well, yesterday I didn’t truly have the belief that I could ski [away] from Marit, because she did have a great performance yesterday in the classic part, especially on the last lap,” Kalla reflected. “So when I decided to speed up I also knew that I cannot look back. I had to give it a real try and just focus in front of me all the time. I could not take a look behind my back because you have to work for a long long time, and today I succeeded.”
With the difference in the two women’s skating techniques, Kalla appeared to be expending more energy, but gradually put a gap on Bjørgen – one ski length, two — easily an amount that could be closed on a downhill. It would have been easy to back off and slow down, but Kalla kept pushing and the gap grew to three seconds, four, five, six.
Bjørgen didn’t respond.
Kalla came flying into the final hill up to the stadium, the one where she had slowed so dramatically the day before, but didn’t lose any of her advantage this time around.
“I was just telling myself to look up to the top, trying to push with your legs all the way,” Kalla said of her decisive move. “In the last sprint hill, before we came up to the stadium, I was thinking, ‘Left, left, left, left… one, two, three, four, five,’ just to be able to think of something else than the pain.”
Kalla skied the turn into the finishing stretch with a clear margin and raised her hands at the finish line as she crossed in 25:50.1 minutes, 9.7 seconds before Bjørgen. She congratulated her rival before jumping in the air and shouting with joy.
“It was an amazing day today,” Kalla said. “I felt very strong during the race. Just tried to ski my very best, and saved as much energy as possible during the first three laps. My dream yesterday, when I went to bed, was to be able to push very hard when we [would go] out on the last lap. And I was a little bit nervous but decided to follow my tactic. When I was on the top of the hill my coach yelled at me that I had six seconds [lead on Bjørgen]. So I had very tired legs, but I knew that I had to fight and do my very very best until the finish line.”
The last time Kalla won a World Cup was in 2015 when she won the 10 k skate in Östersund, Sweden, before winning the same event at the 2015 World Championships at home in Falun, Sweden.
“It was a long time since I won a race the last time,” Kalla noted. “And I think it was 2008 when I won a mini tour, and that was the Tour de Ski, actually. So I have been waiting for this day, and I’m very happy today.”
Also of note is that last year’s Ruka World Cup event Kalla suffered from a heart ailment and had to reduce to a slow-tempo ski to finish the race. One year later, she said that wasn’t on her mind.
“No, I have not been thinking about that myself,” Kalla said of her health scare last year. “But all journalists I have met remembered what happened to me last year. So it’s like night and day to think about and look back to one year ago. It’s something totally different.”
After Bjørgen, Norway took third through fifth places. Haga skied to third (+33.9) and posted the fastest time of day, skiing the course in 25:41.8 as she leapfrogged from 10th place at the start to finish on the podium. Weng finished fourth (+38.0), and Østberg fifth (+40.2).
U.S. Women Continue to Thrive
At the start of the Ruka Triple on Friday, to paraphrase a certain former U.S. Defense Secretary, there were many “known unknowns” for the U.S. Ski Team (USST) in Finland. The answers three days later are clear. Sadie Bjornsen’s (USST) second place and Sophie Caldwell’s eighth place in Friday’s classic sprint set the tone. According to U.S. women’s coach Matt Whitcomb, both Bjornsen and Caldwell have met the objective criteria for the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (That criteria, as applied to Bjornsen and Caldwell, was a top eight in a World Cup classic sprint.)
Four other USST women skied into the points on Sunday. Previously, Jessie Diggins placed 10th in Saturday’s 10 k classic individual start. Ida Sargent placed 15th in the sprint and began Sunday’s final stage in 23rd, based on her 10 k classic result. Rosie Brennan popped two top 30’s in the first two stages. Kikkan Randall, who had two off days in the classic sprint and 10 k classic, stormed back for Sunday’s skate pursuit. Randall began the day in bib 48 and finished the mini tour in 25th place, skiing the eighth-fastest time of the day.
“She looked really strong and in control,” Whitcomb said on the phone about Randall. “She was making kills right from the start. It’s what we have seen out of her in this exact event before with actually with a very similar split several years ago, when we had the skate on the final day. It’s nice that she can leave this weekend with some confidence. She struggled with skis for the first two days of this tour and was skiing frustrated today, and she knows she has fitness, we know she has fitness, and we are really happy she was able to show it today.”
Randall confirmed that Sunday’s effort was a more indicative performance.
“Today was a much better gauge of where my fitness actually is,” Randall emailed. “After two frustrating classic days where the wax was a big factor, it was nice to just be able to go today and use what I have … Today felt the best out of the 3 races. I felt like my body wanted to go hard and I could find good power out there. I felt decent in the two classic races but felt like I couldn’t ski with my full shape because of wax and some technical struggles. So it was nice to know my shape is there.”
Bjornsen was the U.S. women’s top finisher after three days of racing in Ruka. She began the day as the 11th starter and improved to 10th overall by the finish, 1:18 behind Kalla.
“This is where we expect to see Sadie when things are going well,” Whitcomb said of Bjornsen’s performance. “But for things to go well, a lot has to stack up for any athlete, particularly for the beginning of the season, when you are traveling all the way from Alaska. It is pretty remarkable how resilient she is, how strong she has become, and how she can just rise above so many of her European competitors, who have been on snow in this time zone or one hour earlier for the last three or four weeks. She has gone halfway around the world and shown it is not so hard, so we are so impressed with Sadie’s ability to ski the way she this weekend.”
Bjornsen arrived in Europe for the start of the season on Nov. 8.
Out the on course, Whitcomb awaited his skiers atop the course’s big climb at approximately 1.2 k on the 2.5 k loop. There, Whitcomb said he witnessed Bjornsen put her personal stamp on the race’s outcome.
“Sadie had this moment in the race today where she was starting to dangle a little bit of her pack as the pace turned up between laps 2 and 3, and at the hardest part of the course she was forced to make a decision whether or not to hang,” Whitcomb recalled. “And if she just made this move for another minute or two she would be able to ski with them and their draft another three-fourths of a kilometer and pull her that much closer to the finish line and protect her that much more from the packs from behind. That decision today, I think, kept Sadie in the top 10 and that is the kind of racer she is.”
The first skate race of the year was welcomed by Bjornsen.
“Today was another fun, and tough day of racing here to complete the tour,” Bjornsen emailed. “It was nice to have skate skis under my feet after two really challenging classic days! Ruka is what I consider one of the toughest race courses on the circuit. It is just wall after wall (steep climb after steep climb), and you never seem to get a break. Today, it was my goal to catch the group in front of me, and then just hang on for dear life. I woke up feeling good, and recovered after the past two days, so I was feeling excited to see what I can do in skate skiing. I feel like I dug deeper than I have in a long time, and was really satisfied when I finally got to the finish line. I now look forward to a few days of rest before another great weekend of racing in Lillehammer.”
Diggins started the day in 16th and moved up to finish 12th overall. She also skied the 10th fastest time of day.
“A very solid day out of Jessie,” Whitcomb said. “She is perhaps most disappointed on the classic sprint [on Friday]. It was two years ago when we weren’t sure if classic sprinting would ever be in the cards for Jessie and then she is within striking distance of the podium on certain days. I am sure she has left wanting more from that classic sprint, and I am sure we will see her make the rounds and advance through the heats very soon, but to have 10th yesterday, and I believe the 10th-fastest split today on an extremely hard course, that is a great sign.”
For Diggins, who finished last season ranked sixth overall on the World Cup, the three-race weekend was a spark, reminding her body and mind of the racing routine.
“I always work into the season and was carrying a pretty high load of training into the last week, so overall I’m really happy with how the season opener went!” Diggins emailed to FasterSkier. “It was nice to finally race again and get my racing feet under me — and remember how all the testing and warming up works!”
Whitcomb also added some perspective on Diggins and whether her past results place any added undue pressure on her to perform.
“I think Jessie has matured quite a bit as far as that goes, and I think she can be more about the process, and really focus on what she really needs to do on the race each day and during a particular point on the course,” Whitcomb said. “As every k ticks by, rather than focusing on, ‘I must be fifth,’ if she is in 14th, she is going to do everything she can do be 13th and when she does that she will set her next goal. She is very goal-orientated but she is realistic. Yeah, she loves to win; she is focused on things that are in her control.”
Brennan placed 28th overall this weekend, after finishing in a photo finish with Germany’s Sandra Ringwald (in which Ringwald took 27th by 0.1 seconds).
“I am satisfied with the weekend,” Brennan wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “Kuusamo is always a tricky place for me so I am happy to come away with some strong results. I didn’t have any result expectations as it’s the first races of the year and the fields can vary. I feel I have accomplished many of my other goals in my technique and approach so I am satisfied with that … It always helps to have some strong results in the beginning. It gives me confidence in my fitness and some of the skills have been working on over the summer. I have to say, I would have expected the 10k classic to be my strongest so I think some of the work on my weaknesses is paying off and that I am happy about!”
Sargent left Ruka in 38th overall and comes away with renewed confidence. Known as a sprinter, her top 30 on Saturday bodes well for the Craftsbury, Vermont-based skier.
“I am satisfied with the weekend and mostly excited to start the season,” Sargent wrote to FasterSkier. “Yesterday was an awesome day for me so it’s cool to have a distance race carrying my weekend for me. Overall I think it was a great weekend for the team and we are just getting rolling!”
After qualifying for the Olympics in her first race of the season, Caldwell finished one spot behind Sargent in 39th. Liz Stephen (USST) placed 56th overall, Chelsea Holmes (Alaska Pacific University) 60th, while Julia Kern (USST-D-Team) in her first European World Cup weekend was 71st.
Canada started three skiers in the women’s races. Emily Nishikawa (Canadian World Cup Team) led them in 69th overall, Cendrine Browne (National U25 Team) followed in 72nd, and Dahria Beatty (Canadian World Cup Team) placed 79th.
World Cup racing resumes in Lillehammer, Norway, next Saturday with a classic sprint.
— Chelsea Little, Harald Zimmer and Ian Tovell contributed